- 03, Dec 2018
- Parisian theatre
- Rupert Comer
Nestled along the bustling Rue de la Gaîté, a busy street in Paris’ Montparnasse neighbourhood, lined with theatres and cafes, the Théâtre Gaîté-Montparnasse stands out with its red facade and ornate entrance sign. Known for its comedies and musical shows, it continues to attract an audience today with shows like Duel, Battle of the Ballads, a comedy featuring two classical musicians who battle it out in various sketches. Opened in 1867, the theatre has morphed and evolved its style over the years along with the changing demands of its audiences.
The history of this venue gives an interesting account of how different styles of theatre rise and eventually fall.
Opening of the Gaîté-Montparnasse
The founding of the Gaîté-Montparnasse is intimately linked with Napoleon III’s international exposition of 1867. With the Russian Tsar, German Kaiser, and the emperor of Japan attending, the exposition aimed to promote the France of the Second Republic on an international scale. Alongside over 50,000 exhibitors, a temporary theatre was installed for the occasion. Once the exposition was over, entrepreneur François Jamin took this now dismantled theatre, and used its parts to build the Théâtre Gaîté-Montparnasse.
Depictions of Café-Concerts by Edgar Degas
The Café-Concert period
When the theatre first opened it was a Café-Concert, a type of venue that was very popular in belle-époque period in Paris. Both a café and a concert hall, this is where you would go to grab a drink while watching cabaret-like performances. Up until the 1930s the Gaîté-Montparnasse enjoyed a golden age while the Café-Concert remained the most popular style and cultural zeitgeist. However, once it lost its popularity the theatre started to put on increasingly vulgar shows, in a desperate attempt to draw back audiences.
Singer and actress Juliette Gréco, who performed at the Gaîté-Montparnasse
Chanson and the avant-garde
The theatre restored its acclaim during the Second World War and after liberation, as many singers of French chanson took to its stage. Following the war it was also rented out by an avant-garde theatre company who put on a variety of sketches, musical shows, parodies and even poetry recitals. Among the most celebrated performers during this time was Juliette Gréco a bohemian actress and chanson singer who was known as the “muse of existentialism”, due to her popularity within the Parisian intellectual circles of the time.
Saved from demolition
In 1988 the Théâtre Gaîté-Montparnasse was faced with the threat of demolition, but fortunately various influential names in the performance industry rallied round to save it, and the theatre has been in continuous operation ever since. Nowadays considered an institution in Montparnasse, Gaîté-Montparnasse is also listed as a historical building and so won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
Today, Théâtre Gaîté-Montparnasse is the place to go in Paris for comedies (alongside the Théâtre Éduoard VII) and enjoys the same popularity it knew during the Café-Concert era. The auditorium seats 400, and while impressive and majestic looking, still retains an intimate feel. Located on a bustling street full of many restaurants and theatres, Parisians flock to the spot just around the corner from the Montparnasse Tower for a night out. Discover more secrets in our Montparnasse neighbourhood guide! Some of the shows playing here are also accessible to English-speaking audiences.